Predicting Future War: What H.G. Wells Got Right and Wrong

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Was the early science fiction writer better at predicting the nature of conflict than the Pentagon?

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Predicting the conduct of future wars is an impossible yet time-consuming endeavor of the U.S. government. Among the official documents that are produced in an effort to guess the who, where, and how of future conflict, there are the armed services' Visions, Joint Visions, Roadmaps, Technology Vectors, New World Vistas, and Global Trends. In theory, the scenarios developed within these documents should serve as the basis for the Pentagon's strategic plans. The results from recent forecasting efforts, however, have been dismal. As Paul K. Davis and Peter A. Wilson found in a recent article in Joint Forces Quarterly, "The Looming Crisis in Defense Planning:" "The past decade's experiences have not been encouraging: Visions have sometimes gotten far ahead of technology; reason, criticism, and competition have not been sufficiently valued; and joint experimentation has been neither sufficiently ambitious nor rigorous."

In researching the history of war prediction, I ran across the most imaginative such effort from the pacifist science fiction writer, H.G. Wells. In 1901, Wells published his bestselling work of futurology, Anticipations: Of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought, in which he aimed to predict—with uncanny success—societal and technological developments around the world over the next 100 years. In chapter six, "War in the Twentieth Century," Wells presciently described the invention of the "aeroplane" and its impact upon warfare, parachutes, and bombs. For all his genius, however, some of his predictions were off the mark. See below for some of the predictions Wells got right—and wrong.

Best predictions:

"...Long before the year A.D. 2000, and very probably before 1950, a successful aeroplane will have soared and come home safe and sound. Directly that is accomplished the new invention will be most assuredly applied to war." (208)
"Quite certainly those flying machines will carry folded parachutes, and the last phase of many a struggle will be the desperate leap of the aeronauts with these in hand, to snatch one last chance of life out of a mass of crumpling, fallen wreckage." (211)
"The rifle develops persistently from a clumsy implement...towards a very intricate mechanism...One can conceive it provided in the future with cross thread telescopic sights, the focusing of which, corrected by some ingenious use of hygroscopic material, might even find the range, and so enable it to be used with assurance up to a mile or more." (196)
"For a time quite possibly there will not be great general in the field at all. But somewhere far in the rear the central organizer will sit at the telephonic centre of his vast front..." (199)

Worst predictions:

"This tendency to differentiate a non-combatant mass in the fighting state will certainly not be respected; the state will be organized as a whole to fight as a whole; it will have triumphantly asserted the universal duty of its citizens." (203)

3PA: For most of U.S. history, less than 1 percent of the population served in the military, except in times of war. In World War II, approximately 9 percent of the U.S. population served in the military. In 2010, less than .05 percent of the U.S. population has served in the active-duty military since 9/11.
"The spontaneous traffic of the roads in peace will fall now into two streams, one of women and children coming quietly and comfortably out of danger, the other of men and material going up to the front." ( 205)

3PA: It is difficult to determine the number of noncombatants killed in conflict situations, largely because the perpetrators will go to great lengths to conceal the evidence from the international community and monitoring organizations. The most widely accepted ratio of conflict deaths between soldiers and civilians is 50-50. Furthermore, data from 1989 to 2008 demonstrate that nonstate armed groups, not governments, are increasingly responsible for violence perpetrated against civilians. In 1989, governments were responsible for 75 percent of civilian deaths; in 2008, governments were responsible for less than 20 percent. In contrast, in 2008, nonstate armed groups killed over 80 percent of civilians worldwide.
"With the destruction of its military apparatus and the prospective loss of its water and food supply, however, the defeated civilized state will probably be willing to seek terms as a whole, a bring the war to a formal close." (215)

3PA: Since 1950, conflict terminations have become increasingly unstable. In the 1950s, less than 20 percent of conflict terminations restarted within five years. In contrast, by 2003 that number had risen to almost 60 percent. Moreover, since 2003, there have been more outbreaks of conflict than terminations. Furthermore, there has been a marked decline in warfare between states. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, of 30 ongoing wars in 2010, 21 were intrastate, 9 were "internationalized," and zero were between states.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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